Community of Practice — Definition, Best practices, and Examples
A community of practice is a space where people with similar skills gather. These communities often form around professions—you’ll find Communities of Practice in most industries where people benefit from shared knowledge.
But they can also be based around non-professional practices. People interested in arts, sports, hobbies, and charitable work all benefit from dedicated groups to discuss and share knowledge. These communities can be selective about who can join. This is to ensure that everyone in the group adds value to the conversation.
People typically join these groups to learn and share knowledge about their area of interest. They are excellent spaces to network and build relationships with those in your industry. Brands that create a community of practice can assert themselves as authorities in their space and build significant awareness.
Communities of practice are defined by the quality of discussion and the value they bring to members. If you run one of these groups, you should ensure that conversations are geared towards users’ goals.
Consider creating online events that bring extra value to members. You could bring in experts to discuss topics your community is interested in, or organize offline meetings. You may have to be selective about who joins your community to ensure discussions stay on track.
The internet made it easy to create Communities of Practice
The concept of Community of Practice isn’t a new one—people have always met in groups of some form to learn. And the term Community of Practice has been in use since cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger-Trayner coined it in 1991.
But the internet made it easy for people to join groups on pretty much any topic that interests them. People now use these virtual communities to interact with members from all over the world.
They can form offline, too
Not all Communities of Practice form online. Many groups have at least some form of offline interaction, whether that’s a formal weekly meeting or unstructured social meetups. These groups may benefit from an online space for people to communicate, but they aren’t defined by it.
Communities of Practice can also form around existing organizations. For example, a tech company could create a group for its developers to work on problems together. Or a school board could create one that teachers use to share ideas.
What is the purpose of a Community of Practice?
There are two main reasons people join a Community of Practice: to learn about the topic and to communicate with others who share their interests.
People use Communities of Practice to learn
Communities of Practice are useful ways to facilitate learning and the sharing of knowledge. By sharing tips and advice, members of the community benefit from a greater depth of knowledge than if they worked independently.
Here are some ways this could work:
- People can ask and answer questions about industry topics. This helps build up a shared repertoire of resources on common industry challenges.
- People can discuss new ideas and related topics. They gain new perspectives on the things that are happening in the industry.
- The people who run the CoP will often create specific learning resources. They may hold webinars, write blog posts, organize Q and As, or create courses.
The above forms of knowledge sharing have one huge benefit: the more content the community creates, the better a resource it becomes. Each answer, webinar, or blog post adds to a library of content that members can learn from.
People use Communities of Practice to communicate with others
Communities of Practice are excellent spaces to network and build relationships with those who share similar interests. This has obvious benefits in professional communities where a strong network can directly affect career growth. But communication and networking are also essential in non-professional communities, simply because people enjoy interacting with others who share their interests.
What are the benefits of a Community of Practice?
A well-run Community of Practice provides many benefits, both to the members and the people who run the community.
Increase their knowledge
Communities of Practice encourage professional development. Newcomers can learn from the entire library of previous discussions and resources. While experts can bounce ideas off other people at a similar stage of learning.
Improve their reputation
Being active in a Community of Practice can improve a member’s reputation in their industry. All answered questions, discussion contributions, and shared content help build their authority.
Build a bigger network
Communities of Practice are ready-made networks of people in a shared field. By joining a community, each member gains access to this network. This is especially helpful if the member lacks networking opportunities. For example, if they live in a remote location or if other commitments affect their ability to network.
Find career or job opportunities
More extensive networks and increased industry authority can lead to better career opportunities. People who see your expertise through your posts may hire you to do a specific job. And many Communities of Practice actively advertise jobs to community members.
Organizations can also benefit from CoPs. Here is how:
Build brand awareness
Starting a Community of Practice is an excellent way to build brand awareness among people in your industry. The more value and positive experiences you provide to members, the more people will look positively at your brand.
Access deeper industry insight
You also gain deeper insight into the industry you work in. You’ll see the challenges people face and the solutions they are currently using. This can help with everything from product development to marketing.
Improve knowledge management
Internal or employee Communities of Practice are a valuable way for organizations to improve knowledge management. Encouraging members to ask questions and share information ensures employees have access to knowledge from throughout your organization.
What makes a Community of Practice successful?
A Community of Practice lives or dies by the value it provides members. Unfortunately, not all Communities of Practice are successful. But the ones that are, typically have three things in common.
1. They have a clear focus area
The best Communities of Practice have a clear area of focus that all members can get behind. The wider the focus, the less likely it is to meet the specific needs of the members at the heart of it.
Imagine you created a community about marketing. This is such a wide discipline that you’ll struggle to help specific members. A recent graduate working on a small business’s social media accounts and a CMO at a Fortune 500 company both work in marketing, but they have vastly different needs.
A better Community of Practice would focus on one of these groups. This way, it will be able to provide specific value to all members.
There are other ways to provide focus beyond narrowing down the subject area. You could create a group for:
- People in a specific area or region (e.g. lawyers in Toronto)
- Employees at your company (e.g. programmers at Google)
- People in a particular role (e.g. special education teachers)
- People looking to achieve a particular goal (e.g. students trying to get into medical school)
2. They have the right members
Members are the most important part of the community. A thriving membership encourages engagement, adds value and knowledge to your community, and helps attract recruits.
Attracting members isn’t easy, especially at the start. Some of the following techniques may help:
- Set up your community with a clear purpose and goal.
- Create a community in an area without much competition.
- Build a community for an existing group, like your employees, local meetups, or informal online networks.
Once your community is thriving, you may attract people organically. But early on, you may have to take a more hands-on approach to recruit a core group of active members. Remember that members will have different levels of participation. Some will contribute every day, while others will mainly consume content.
3. They have an active leadership
A community’s members are key to the value it offers. But good community management is necessary to encourage engagement and community activity.
As a community convener, you can start by actively seeding discussions. Consider asking questions, organizing community events (AMAs, webinars, etc.), and providing updates about community activity.
You should also actively moderate the community to keep everyone on track. Start by lining up expectations that people have to agree to once they join. Then create clear guidelines for using the community, for example, the types of content people can share and where to discuss different topics.
What are the characteristics of a Community of Practice?
All Communities of Practice have three essential characteristics: members, practice, and the community space.
You can’t have a community without members. These are the people that bring value to the community through their knowledge and expertise. When creating your community, everything you do should focus on bringing value to members.
Communities of Practice naturally have a shared domain of interest (or practice) they are built around.
The shared practice should be something that:
- People are passionate about it.
- People have a reason to learn more about it.
The community space is the place where community actions occur. Often this is an online space like a community platform or social media group. For an offline community, it will be a physical space like a meeting room or a cafe.
Communities often use multiple spaces. You could have an online platform for discussions, an email newsletter for community updates, a website to promote the community to the world, and even regular offline meeting space.
What are the types of Community of Practice?
Professional Community of Practice
A professional Community of Practice is one built around a particular industry or field. Members are typically people who work in this field.
They come from various companies and roles, and all contribute to the space’s overall knowledge.
These communities form in one of two ways:
- Self-organizing communities occur organically when a group of people decides to formalize an existing community.
- They are created by a single person or group who spots a need and then builds a community to fill it.
Professional CoPs are good for: Learning new or emergent best practices, knowledge sharing, networking.
Corporate learning Community of Practices
Some companies create internal Communities of Practice that operate within their organizational structure. These are similar to professional Communities of Practice, with the difference being that only people from within a particular organization can join.
These communities are an excellent way to share knowledge throughout a company. All members have access to the entire organization’s knowledge—at least in the area related to the Community of Practice.
The downside is that these communities lack external input. You may be missing out on knowledge from outside sources. And while they are good for networking with other people in the organization, networking opportunities outside this are limited.
Corporate learning CoPs are good for: Knowledge management, team building, problem-solving.
Non-professional Community of Practice
Not all Communities of Practice are professional. Some form around hobbies or other non-professional practices.
These share much in common with other types of communities. For example, they are places where community members can learn and share new knowledge about the central topic.
These groups aren’t communities of interest, which may form around common interests like music genres or sports teams. Instead, they require a central practice that people can develop, like playing a musical instrument, a craft, or an art form.
Non-professional CoPs are good for: Gathering with like-minded people, social learning.
Examples of a Community of Practice
There are many examples of Communities of Practice in pretty much all fields.
They range from global groups with hundreds of thousands of members to niche communities with just a handful of collaborators. And they could be anything from in-person communities to groups on social sites like Linkedin.
Here are some Community of Practice examples that span this range.
Coachhub, a talent development platform founded in 2018 that offers personalized, measurable, and scalable coaching programs for the entire workforce of an organization launched a community for the coaches. The community acts as a central hub for coaches and helps them build stronger relationships.
The community also empowers the coaches to network, uplift and help one another. Of course, the Coachhub team shares educational resources in the community to elevate the skills of the coaches.
The Klaus Community is a space for customer support professionals. It’s a platform where members can connect and learn from each other about customer support best practices.
The community is run by Klaus, a customer support quality assurance tool. But it’s open to anyone, whether they are a customer or not. Klaus team members are active in the community and are happy to share their expertise.
This is a great example of how a brand can create a community to build its authority in its industry. Every member who joins to learn about customer support indirectly learns about Klaus’s software.
Stack overflow is a huge online programming Community of Practice. Members join to ask and answer questions as well as to learn from previously discussed content. The community is so large that it now has many sub-communities dedicated to a specific programming language.
It’s a great example of how a Community of Practice can generate a valuable content library over time. This type of library helps attract new members who want access to the knowledge it contains.
And while new people may initially join the community to learn, they may start sharing their expertise once they become embedded in it. This flywheel effect further builds the community’s library of content.
How to start a Community of Practice
Cultivating Communities of Practice isn’t easy. Here are five steps you can take to ensure you set off in the right direction.
1. Identify the community
The first step to creating a Community of Practice is identifying a group of people that will benefit from one. This could be an existing informal network that you are part of, or it could be a group that you think would enjoy being part of a new community.
2. Identify the value
Next, you need to think about the value your community will bring to these people. Having a solid value offering is the only way to ensure people will join your community and then keep coming back.
Your value proposition could be:
- Access to a specific network
- Invitations to community events or discussions
- Access to learning resources like courses or lectures.
- Mentoring opportunities
When you start out, it helps to be specific. Potential members should have an excellent idea about what they get when they join the community. If the value is strong enough, you’ll end up with a thriving community of practitioners.
The lack of value is a community killer
There are two fundamental value-related problems that communities suffer from.
Create a strong value proposition
The biggest sign that your value proposition isn’t strong enough is when you struggle to get people to sign up for the community in the first place.
This can occur when:
- You haven’t differentiated your community enough. People have no reason to join your community over another one.
- You haven’t explained your community’s value well enough. People don’t understand why they should join your community.
- Your value doesn’t match a need. Sometimes people simply don’t need what you are offering.
How to fix it:
There are several fixes you can use to improve the value proposition.
- Make your offer more specific. Instead of creating a community for anyone in an industry, create one for people in the industry who are based in a particular area.
- Improve your marketing: If you’re convinced your offer is good, it may just be that you aren’t explaining it well enough. Look at your marketing and decide whether you could do a better job of telling people what your community is all about.
- Add more value: Another option is to add more value to the community. You could start to create learning resources, schedule expert speakers, create a community job board or set up one-to-one networking opportunities.
Match the value with members’ expectations
The second issue is when the value of the community doesn’t match people’s expectations. This could be the case if you have plenty of sign-ups, but people don’t stick around for long.This can occur when:
- You oversell your community. You promise things that your community doesn’t actually offer.
- Your community isn’t well-structured. You have members with tons of knowledge, but it’s not clear what they should do once they join the community.
How to fix it:
In this case, the solution will depend on the problem:
- If you’re overselling the community, consider either changing your marketing or adding more value.
- If your community isn’t organized, consider creating rules to improve moderation.
3. Provide the platform
Next, you need to provide the platform or space where your community will operate. If you’re starting an online community, you’ll need software that will host your community. This could be anything from a dedicated community platform to a social media group.
If your community is offline, you’ll need to organize a meeting space. The exact space will depend on your needs. It could be anything from a small table in a cafe to renting out a lecture hall.
4. Engage the community
It can be tempting to assume that your community will run automatically once you have members signed up. But this is unlikely to be the case.
You’ll need to put in significant efforts to engage the community and ensure everyone gets value. Here is an article with 70+ community engagement techniques and a webinar recording that highlights engagement strategy.
Community facilitators can do this by:
- Organizing events
- Holding community activities like talks or webinars
- Seeding and encouraging discussions
- Sending out newsletters highlighting community content
5. Onboard new members
You need a way to welcome new members into your group while setting expectations. You can quickly set up a simple two-step process to cover both these bases.
First, create a list of rules, guidelines, or expectations. These should clearly tell new members what is expected of them in the community, as well as highlight the type of content and actions your community produces.
You could highlight this in a pinned post in your community, email it to new members, or even make them agree to the rules before applying to join.
Then set up a simple first task that any new member can perform. This can be as simple as creating a space for introductions and asking each new member to introduce themselves to the group.